Michèle Bokanowski


Metamkine, 1992

When time stretches out and all processes appear at once slowed down and silent, an inner void seems to open up, which is often seen as unpleasant, even existential. Moments of standstill, dead time, if you will, that make us feel guilty if we do not fill them with meaning. The span between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is often felt like this. One rather prefers all forms of distraction than to face this vacuum and then possibly overcome it. Who really admits to being bored these days? It’s a trite observation, but boredom seems to be one of the last taboos — luxuries perhaps — of our society. And I do not mean the boredom that can result from monotonous work routines. More a specific awareness of time going by. The reverse of the busy and the rushed, a departure from the visual and acoustic irradiation and the trivialities of everyday life, where hardly any stimulation is possible without external stimulation. A more conscious perception of silence if you may. For example, the silence in observation, in various forms of music or film, in experiencing nature or before the sublime. Conditions that must be preserved, also because self-reflection is rarely possible without such; and where time does not play a role, memory, therefore has no place to be addressed. I’m aware this can be perceived as frightening, since it also allows the descent into a “landscape of the soul” — what somewhere in the winding corners of memory has been preserved indefinitely, now boldly waves at you again. Which does not necessarily mean that reflective processes make things clearer: memory researcher Aleida Assmann writes that images, unlike texts, adapt to the landscape of the unconscious and there is a thin line between image and dream, whereby the image is elevated to vision and given a life of its own. This would perhaps also describe the mysterious fact that the more scenes from your own past rise up, the more it sometimes seems that the origin of these mental pictures cannot be further explained and you wonder if whether the past in fact happened this way. Assmann continues that these conceptions appear in the memory above all where no processing of language can reach, especially when it comes to traumatic or very early experiences. A deeply engraved image that possesses a diffuse narrative structure itself and does not tend to make sense.
     These “semi-subterranean places of the soul” (Aby Warburg) are both swamp and fundus at the same time: undermined by kitsch, hardly a thought stirs in them, just kaleidoscopic impressions that reluctantly feed perception and imagination. As a result, a pale forest in the southwest German province can well be remembered by myself as an intoxicatingly experienced, mysterious world. A landscape in which it also seems as if I had not approached a single person in it — except for one time, when I suddenly thought that I had seen a tall, strange man behind a shrub and stopped motionless. Often I’d follow the course of a small stream until nightfall and I recall an encounter with a completely torn up dove, apparently struck by a Sparrowhawk, whose remains lay glowingly in the middle of the black fir forest. This scene had brought something far more dangerous and unfamiliar to me than its ordinary habit allowed and I remember how it followed me for weeks.

Michèle Bokanowski’s music seems to correlate with these “semi-subterranean” memories in which experiences have set like sediments and yet still exist, continue and shift. Music that may come across as rather unsentimental and primitive at first, but is much more psychological than others, much more connected to the inner life. Bokanowski says her material “might be sounds from the past, and/or the future” and that she wants to “work with the memory of something, with connections that go from the composer’s unconscious to affect the viewer’s.” It’s almost like her work acts as a mnemonic device, as a carrying of memory that expresses itself as a passive, receptive and mystical one. Despite drawing from an academic background — she studied philosophy, later on sound synthesis and electronic music under Pierre Schaeffer and Eliane Radigue —, her work could be seen as the opposite of highbrow composition and seems to be more interested in an emotional response, rather than just an intellectual.
     Now I am neither turned towards the esoteric, nor can I report on particular transcendental experiences, but sometimes there are those inexplicable moments and correspondences in which, so to speak, the most distant in time morphs together with the closest in space. Fully aware that for some time now musical forms such as Hauntology have existed which, from a critical, postmodern perspective, are devoted solely to the cultural past and the beyond; music in which, so to speak, the present is “haunted” by the horrors of the past. This concept, undoubtedly fascinating, but already too constructed in its entirety, is not what is meant here — perhaps, however, a somewhat “hauntological effect” that occurs now and then. So the longer I listen to the music of Michèle Bokanowski, the more I realize that there’s a terrifying depth lurking in it — the metaphysical underpinning of reality, if you will. Yet nothing is forced here in a dramatic or narrative sense, nothing is demanded, except perhaps to sharpen one’s own hearing consciousness a little.
     Regarding the making of this sixteen-minute composition, she states: “The origin of Tabou is the recording of a conversation made at home with two American friends – and the husband of one of them who had joined us – whose voices I liked. In retrospect, the more I listened to this recording, the more intrigued I became: as if, behind this seemingly innocuous exchange, something very mysterious and important was hidden and had to be revealed.” Bokanowski typically does that by means of magnetic tapes, just like her mentor Pierre Schaeffer, who made the first sound collages — musique concrète as he dubbed it — with those same tapes at French national radio some fifty years earlier. Similar to Schaeffer’s methods of creating music, the found or recorded material is carefully modified, yet with a deeper sense for mechanical repetition and musical rhythm, it seems to me. The purely documentary elements are extracted, additions and cutbacks are made. Voice and tone pitches are changed, something is moved to a different place, emphasized, shortened or distorted by a minor detail: so in front of a quietly threatening background noise, the speed-up, looped vocal fragments swarming in from nowhere, forming a quiet flurry, like nocturnal moths, rushing around a lamp in wild circles and bows. And just like the feverish moth that would ultimately come to its end at the foot of the lamp from sheer exhaustion, the last few minutes of this composition feel like the final act of a silent destruction, when only the crackling of a fire can be heard — and therein, in the movement of the flames, its embers and consumption, also lies the beginning of something new.

Bokanowski’s made one of her first musical appearances when she composed the soundtrack to the experimental horror short La femme qui se poudre (unfortunately taken off of Youtube). A film that, thanks to her stark and sinister sonic architecture, seems more intense and bleak than almost anything else. In the same year she also began working on Pour un pianiste, a wonderful seventeen-minute piece consisting of manipulated recordings of a prepared piano from which repetitive, rhythmic patterns are woven. Over the next few years Bokanowski wrote music for the stage and film, including the soundtrack for the surreal animated movie L’Ange, before she went on recording Tabou in 1983. This particular tape was released a good ten years later by the French label Metamkine as part of a series called Cinéma pour l’oreille. A fascinating run of 30 concrète recordings, usually released as a mini CD. Among them Walter Ruttmann’s Weekend, a pioneering sound collage of pre-war Berlin; the walker in the unpredictable open space in Lionel Marchetti’s La grande vallée or Eliane Radigue’s murky womb sounds in Biogenesis. Based on Radigue’s record, there is additionally a worthwhile article by VAN online magazine on the (male) reception of drone music and its womb-like metaphors.

And with the poetic — pathos-laden — words of the great Eliane Radigue on the music of Michèle Bokanowski I would like to conclude it here:

“A choir in which everything is melted, intermingled, becomes a playful mirror of illusion, the essence of life, the gravity of being, forever recovered in the primordially unique, reflected in the galloping of time.

The magic of childhood ever-present in the heart of man even beyond his abrupt end.”

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